Postcard from the Edge of Global Research: Can You Tell What Language Someone Speaks? Well, Sim — and Nyet.
So, I don’t know about you, but when I’m traveling overseas — or even when I’m just touring around domestically — I’m absolutely fascinated listening to the multitude of languages, dialects and accents I hear along the way — waiting in the security line, getting settled on a plane, checking into my hotel. I’m always thinking, wouldn’t it be great if I could say “hello” or “thank you” or “goodbye” in the language the other person speaks? I don’t mean necessarily striking up a random conversation with just anyone — I tend to focus more on the people I am interacting with for a good reason — there is usually some kind of transaction or exchange of information going on.
If you think about it, an amazing number of people in the world can speak at least some English, for which I am very grateful, so it seems like acknowledging their original languages and places of origin would be the right thing to do — if you could do it right.
I’m not a linguistics expert by any means, but I like to think that every language has certain telltale signs that differentiate it from every other language. But that doesn’t always work in a practical sense. For example, if you hear someone say something that sounds like “ney” — it could be “no” in Dutch or “yes” in Korean — so the context — where you are and who the speaker is — is key. I try to store new words, phrases and pronunciations in “Evernote” on my smartphone, so I can call on them when I need them. Livemocha.com and Duolingo.com are two other language learning resources worth checking out.
But for me, the easiest way to find out someone’s first language is to ask politely in English where he or she is from originally (assuming there is a chance the person speaks English in the first place). As long as my request appears to come from a place of sincere curiosity and courtesy, most people are happy to answer my question. Some even beg me to guess! I had one taxi driver in Dallas who was shocked because I correctly guessed he was from Somalia. He looked so tall and lanky like the famous fashion model Iman, so it wasn’t that much of a stretch. But in other cases, I have been completely stumped. The Egyptian bellman in Sydney — he could have been from so many places around the world — I had no clue just based on his looks or his accent.
Taxi drivers and hospitality workers all over the world have been enormously helpful in my quest to say small words in many languages with a halfway decent accent. I have also been helped by Google Translate, many of my friends who speak English as a second language, our overseas research partners and fellow travelers. So, to all of you, I say “shukran,” “xièxiè,” “spasibo,” … I could go on and on, really. So let me just say “thanks.”